Apples to Oranges

by Gillian Larson | posted: June 30, 2016
Now what? This is the sort of thing horses face on the trail

As I was riding out of Castle Crags, I passed a hiker on the trail on a particularly steep, hot, rocky section, and I braced myself for the inevitable comment that I knew was coming: "Wow, you're so lucky. That's the easy way to do the PCT." I get variations of this theme many times a day; almost every hiker I come across seems to think it necessary to tell me how much harder he or she has it than I do. And I understand that when they see me as I'm riding (especially if--as this hiker was--they are struggling under a heavy pack on a hot day with a steep climb), it probably does look "easy" at that moment. But why they think it is necessary to make the comparison, and in the process to imply that what I am doing is somehow a "lesser" accomplishment, continues to baffle me. I understand that the majority of them are reacting out of complete ignorance regarding horses, but that also makes the immediate judgement about the less difficult nature of my journey even more incomprehensible--if you really don't know what you're comparing yourself to, why would you presume to do so, and especially in a derogatory way?

It truly is a case of apples and oranges--two completely different entities--neither of which is "better" than the other. You can't make a pie out of oranges and serve it "a la mode" and you can't slake your thirst by savoring some apple slices. They are simply different fruit, with different qualities and potential. The same goes for riding vs. hiking on the PCT. In fact, the same could be said for almost everyone who is out here, because we all have our own different goals and obstacles and aptitudes, and what makes one person's journey possible or worthwhile is not the same experience that another might have--or even wish to have.

Yes, in terms of transporting my body along the miles of the trail, at times I do have it "easy" because I'm not always on my feet, although I do generally walk about half of each day's journey, some 10 to 15 miles, depending on what we cover that day. And I do it with a pack on my back which contains my own supplies--clothes, food, tent, etc. What the horses carry is simply what they require. When I have Takoda as a pack horse, he can take the load off of Shyla, and he carries their food, the water buckets, the highline equipment, their blankets and fly masks, emergency boots--everything I need specifically because I have two animals to take care of. And in many ways, they are like 1000 lb. toddlers, as they are 100% dependent on me. I have to be sure that I've packed the right kind of food, and in sufficient qualities, and arranged for re-supply when we run out. I have to maintain their shoes, fetch their water, clean them and brush them, doctor any wounds, make sure that they have a comfortable place to be overnight. I get up in the night to re-fill their water, often lugging heavy buckets quite a distance (you are not allowed to camp overnight with a horse within a certain distance of a water supply, so that means carrying the water to the horse). And trees that hikers can step over or duck under or climb across, barely even breaking their stride, are serious obstacles for the horses. Can we find a path around that tree? Can they jump it? Can I saw through it? If I take off the saddle and pack gear, could they possibly squeeze underneath it? How steep is the hillside if we have to climb up or down to get around it? What other obstacles are out there that they might step on or cut their legs on as they go by? Every time I see something looming there's a knot in the pit of my stomach as I know that I will once again have to find a way to navigate some challenge. And afterward, there's a satisfying sense of accomplishment . . . until the next downed tree or rock slide or washout or snow bank or whatever.

And in other ways, hikers have many advantages to their travel that I can't partake in. One of the realities of riding is that it is very isolating. I can't fall in with a group of people and meet up and camp with them or walk beside them if we want to; my pace and my needs, and those of the horses, are just not compatible with that of hikers. Plus, I doubt anyone really wants to camp with me, when the horses munch, and nicker, and grunt, and lay down to roll, then stand up and shake, and paw, and move about on the highline all night long. I'm very conscious of not intruding on the peace and quiet of my fellow PCT travelers. But I also have to camp near water every night; the worst experience I had so far this year was a night when the water source the my Guthook app promised existed a mile or so off the trail turned out to be bone dry; it was 9pm and I had no idea where I was going to find water for the horses. It also takes me a lot longer to set up camp in the evening and get going in the morning, especially if I have both horses. I've heard hikers complain about the tedium of staking out their tents only to have to roll them up again in the morning. But my routine when I arrive in camp requires unsaddling and grooming the horses, then letting them graze if there's grass while I put up the highline and set-up my tent; then I bring them in for their concentrated feed and perhaps start soaking the dehydrated bales after I make sure the horses have had a good drink. I might make dinner for myself, then give them their soaked hay, then offer more water before bed; I almost always get up in the night to give them more food and/or water. In the morning I repeat the feeding of concentrated pelleted food and the watering, then start packing up my gear and loading the panniers. If they are full at the beginning of a section, they often weigh 60-70 lbs and I can't lift them onto the pack saddle by myself, so I have to pack them and weigh them to be sure they are even, then unpack them and secure them on the pack saddle that I've put on Takoda, then re-pack them again. Shyla's saddle and saddlebags go on, and I strap on my backpack, and at some point I have to take down the highline and make sure I'm not leaving behind a collapsible bucket or lead rope or other crucial piece of equipment. It's about 2 hours of work on each end of the day, just so I can take it "easy" on the trail!

However, if the hikers' comments come from ignorance, the occasional criticism from other equestrians is even more confusing. I don't know what it is about the world today, but everyone seems to want to tell you how you are doing things wrong. The need to judge and attack and run-down others is out of control. I would never presume to tell someone how they should do this trail. If I'm asked, I am happy to describe what worked for me and reasoning behind why I did what I did, but I understand that others might need to or want to make different choices. I've had people criticize the fact that I ride with a backpack because they say it will interfere with my balance; it can do that, but I prefer to compensate for that rather than make Shyla carry "dead" weight on her back if I can make it "live" weight on my body instead (and it disappears for her entirely when I get off and walk). And I've kept that weight to a minimum by investing in ultra lightweight gear. I've had people go ballistic because I chose to ride one day in southern California when there was quarter inch of rainfall; they accused me of possibly "ruining" the trail by having the horses walk on it when it was wet. Maybe in the world that person lives in there is a choice of staying home (and dry) during every sprinkle, but I'm sure if riders near Seattle or in England stayed off their horses every time there were clouds overhead, they would never leave the barn. It's so easy from a distance to play Monday morning quarterback and to judge the choices others make; hell, even I re-think my decisions constantly, and there are times when if I had the luxury of hindsight I too would have made a different choice. One of the reasons I'm out here for a second time is because I felt that after my experience in 2014 I could make some more informed decisions during this ride. But not everything is under my control--including the weather--and I have to make the best of what is available to me at any moment. For others who are not here, facing what I am facing, to feel justified in spouting their own uninformed opinions feels like the height of arrogance to me.

There are many things that riding gives me that hikers miss out on, especially the luxury of viewing the scenery of this trail as I go along it, but there are also things that I can't do because I'm on horseback. I can't just stop somewhere if I feel tired and take a nap or read a book. I can't take an extra zero just because I want to, since I won't have food enough for the horses if I do. I can't dangle my feet in some cool water and eat lunch if there's nowhere convenient to tie the horses. I can't adopt the attitude that "the trail will provide" because I doubt the trail will have alfalfa or electrolytes or concentrated feed or borium-tipped shoes. It's a huge responsibility to have the well-being of these horses on my shoulders, and it's a privilege to share the experience with them, to feel that they are my companions, to wake up at night and have Shyla nicker softly to me to let me know that she knocked over her water bucket and would I please re-fill it. I might not want to get out of my tent to do that, but I will anyways, because she trusts me to take care of her. Together we're a team, and yes, they carry me and make it possible for me to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the PCT, but I also do my share of the work to ensure that they are safe and well-fed and rested and cared for. I think sometimes of that line, "He's not heavy; he's my brother," and how it applies to us--this may not be the "easy" way to do the PCT, but I can also say, "It's not hard; they are my family." Because out here, that's what they are to me.


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